This latest Charlie Kaufman's work will not be for everyone.
Here be spoilers…
What we like
Man, if you're expecting Charlie Kaufman to do a straight-forward refitting of a novel for film, you must not have watched Adaptation. Like what he did with Susan Orlean's The Orchid Thief, Kaufman plants the bare minimum of the work's premise and something different grows out from it.
I'm Thinking of Ending Things is an adaptation of Iain Reed's work of the same name. The premise of both mediums are similar: our protagonist narrates her relationship with Jake, her boyfriend, who is taking her to meet his parents at a remote farm. She has doubts about their union but before she can talk to Jake about it, strange things keep happening to them.
That synopsis tells you that it's your run-of-the-mill thriller; the novel runs that course and hits you with an ending that explains the pervading weirdness throughout the protagonist's ordeal. For the film, even when the end credits roll, you might mutter, what the fuck but it won't be along the lines of 'what did I just watched' but rather 'that was kinda cool'.
It is an uncompromising examination of relationships, especially within oneself. How we can build a world that is constructed from the detritus of our history. Kaufman sprinkles breadcrumbs, a trail, for us to follow but they are left in the wake of shifting perspectives and jumbled timeline so that we're forced to work out meanings by bridging these disparate constellations of dots.
Kaufman digs up the familiar discomfort of human interactions. Jake and Lucy (or is it Louisa? Lucia? Ames) go through the motions of a couple that is already at the end of the rope but still on the fence on whether or not as to continue with this charade of a relationship. That long car ride where you fill in the dead air with meaningless chit-chat; the awkward first meeting with your beau's parents, all these are something that one would have gone through and would choose not to revisit.
But social unease gives way to a creeping weirdness as Lucy is experiencing breaks in reality. There is more to the world that she's operating in but as an entry point for the audience, we are left in the dark, and to our own devices, as to what the hell is going on.
Toni Collette and David Thewlis play Jake's parents. They are both welcoming and overbearing; a double-act of social artlessness that fills the empty spaces of Jake's world: Collette's pushiness and Thewlis' 'eh-what-are-you-gonna-do' mindset, the two of them complement each other's idiosyncrasies and layered the film with a thick helping of oddness.
Buckley is winsome with her enthused approach to travelling far from the comfort of the city (the Irish actor also appears in the current season of Fargo). Her guardedness is raised (not fully, but just enough to keep the plot going) whenever she encounters that stray aberrance or with Jake's many psychologically-tinged attempts at revealing himself. Jesse Plemons' forte is playing socially-inept characters (this isn't a knock on his talent but when he plays weird, he goes all in) and his role with Jake is no different. If anything, Jake is the encapsulation of the drifting thoughts of self-doubt that all of us have: always quick to sound smart or relevant with the deliveries of random facts or the earnestness to please.
As mentioned before, the novel concludes with a twist. The film follows the same path but its not interested in the pristine presentation of it. Instead, Kaufman rather shines the light on the human condition, of the existentialism of being. In the backdrop of an impending blizzard, of the disintegration of a relationship, I'm Thinking of Ending Things is the director's most assured psychodrama yet.
What we didn't like
For the rest of you who aren't fans of psychodramas, you might hate it.
When Kaufman helms a project, the final product will be an uncompromising reflection of his vision. It won't be everybody's cup of tea but it will be true. And that's the problem: no one borders his thoughts, no one reins his imagination down.
Kaufman's recent inaugural novel, Antkind, is a heady 720-page tome. Synecdoche, New York, his directorial debut, did poorly at the box office but was lauded by critics. Because of the unfettered nature of his work, criticism lobbed against it consists of words like "pretentious", "self-indulgent", "confusing".
People might expect an Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind but you're going to be left with a Rubik's Cube that you have to solve in the dark. I mean, I'm Thinking of Ending Things begin with a 22-minute car ride, where Jake and Lucy are trading philosophical notes about life; you might feel like you've wasted time when you could be binge-watching Emily in Paris.
It can be confusing and for those who want a clean resolution to the proceedings, will be hard-pressed to find none offered in I'm Thinking of Ending Things. What's the deal with the choreographed dance at the end? What is going on with the reference to Oklahoma? Why am I Googling 'what-in-fresh-hell-is-up-with-this-movie' after the credits roll?
So, yeah. Might not be your usual cup of tea.
What to look out for
Many clues allude to all that the film is building towards. They may seem extraneous—conversations that are peppered with work that hints of their existence, the drawn-out scenes that seem to talk about them rather than the topic of discussion. We hear dialogue that seems to be lifted from poems or film reviews, as exemplified by Jake's old childhood room at the farm that is filled with accruements of his youth.
Also, there is a cheesy romance that the janitor watches that ends with a special director mention that you've to keep an eye out for.
I'm Thinking of Ending Things is now out on Netflix.